Review: Ty Dolla Sign's Free TC

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AS A COLLECTION of individual tracks, Ty Dolla Sign’s Free TC is one of the year’s most purely enjoyable R&B records. Over an assortment of beats that are equal parts grimy hip-hop and pristine radio pop, Ty and a slew of high-profile guests revive thug-and-B with an onslaught of earworm hooks and quotable lines. Despite this technically being his debut LP, Ty has long been a fixture in modern music and he holds his own impressively alongside the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Babyface and Jagged Edge.

But there’s supposed to be more to Free TC than just anonymous sex and woozy club scenes. The album’s beating heart comes from Big TC, Ty’s younger brother who is currently imprisoned for a murder that he maintains TC did not commit. In addition to being the record’s namesake, TC appears all over his brother’s album, both through a series of phone call interludes and as a vocalist on the show-stopping “Miracle/Wherever”.

Some of the album’s most touching, empathetic moments come when the two brothers are speaking. Whether it’s TC teasing Ty about cutting off his dreads, or telling him that the prison got raided and he can’t use his commissary, their relationship is heartfelt and sincere, giving us more insight into Ty as a person.

Despite the album’s title, Ty doesn’t use his verses on Free TC to touch on his personal hardships. There are a few nice musical moments, like hearing the two talk as the guitar slowly builds on “Horses in the Stable” or the angelic vocal harmonies churn on “Credit”, but once the beat kicks in Ty goes back to spitting game and giving us vivid accounts if his sexual escapades.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, since he’s a terrific songwriter and a strong enough singer to thrive over a variety of soundscapes. TC is probably the better singer of the pair, but Ty has a nice ear for melodies and a deep, slightly raspy delivery. A lesser vocalist wouldn’t be able to sell a track like “Solid”, with little more than acoustic guitar as backing, but Ty thrives with more freedom to stretch his voice.

Elsewhere, “LA” and “Guard Down” offer some dynamism in terms of subject matter, and their production is expansive and cinematic. Kendrick delivers vintage bars about the dark side of the golden state, and while Ty isn’t quite as eloquent, he weaves a pretty compelling yarn in his own way (“In the city of the gang-bang/Yeah we still dying over red and blue strings/Chuck my set up and it feel good/Cause don’t nobody love you more than your neighborhood”).

Ty showcases his vocal range and veers into slow jam territory on “Straight Up” and “Horses in the Stable”, a pair of bedroom certified cuts that also happen to double down on misogyny (yes, the “horses” here happen to be Ty’s assortment of girls across the country). On “Straight Up” he has some help thanks to the syrupy harmonies of Jagged Edge, but he handles the proceedings solo on “Horses”, managing to make his street lothario persona endearing, and his vocal runs on the hook are gorgeous even if the lyrics are a little cringe-worthy. Still, there’s a confidence needed to pull off this kind of song, and Ty shows shades of mid-2000s R. Kelly at his best by making it work.

The aforementioned “Miracle/Wherever” serves as the record’s halfway point, and it’s a sprawling, eight-minute epic featuring angelic harmonies and production so immaculate it doesn’t matter that TC’s contribution (and D-Loc’s verse) was ripped from a year-old YouTube video. Even though “Wherever” — the song’s latter half — returns to Ty’s carnal comfort zone it still bears an arresting spirituality, due in large part to his soul-bearing, velvety falsetto.

Unfortunately, Free TC does slow down a bit after that soaring peak. The album’s second section is made up of mostly radio records, some of which work (the gloriously ignorant “Blasé”), some of which don’t (the EDM-inspired “Bring It Out of Me”). Ty’s still having a blast, but he isn’t stretching himself much as a vocalist, and this crop of guests (Wiz Khalifa, Fetty Wap, YG) don’t move the needle much.

His R. Kelly collaboration, “Actress”, is a bit self-indulgent, but it’s fun to hear Ty riffing his way through the names of various stars, and he once more breaks out his signature falsetto. The beat is a woozy sludge of trap drums and synths, and Kells adds a nice element, even if it takes a few bars to adjust to his autotune warble. The aptly named closer “Finale” features some of Free TC’s most off-kilter, eclectic production, courtesy of DJ Khalil and Thundercat. The beat shimmers and glistens with lush synths and some outright bizarre percussion cues.

With this album, Ty has proven that he’s not just another hook and single singer. He’s actually capable of creating a project that keeps listeners engaged for 16 tracks. While it would’ve been interesting to see Ty delve into his relationship with his incarcerated brother through more than just interludes, Free TC is a well-crafted representation of his considerable talents. B